roslyn bernstein
6 min readJan 18, 2024



When I was ten years old, my father decided to take our family on a southern vacation, driving south from Long Beach, New York to Florida in the middle of the summer. There was no sense to such a trip, in a car that was not air conditioned during a heat wave but for the family it was our first big adventure. We left our cool beach-front community for the muggy south, stopping along the way at two motels, with hand-painted signs that were swinging from overhanging wooden porches. “Whites Only,” they said in large block letters.

That was the first time I had ever seen such a sign and I badgered my dad over and over again to explain exactly what it meant and how that sign was legal. I had read about the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves. I had read about slaves escaping danger and heading North through secret passageways, with the help of abolitionists. But I thought that was in the past. Segregation still existed, even in my beach town where the few blacks lived in a couple of run-down houses on blocks by the railroad station but I had never seen a Whites Only sign hanging anywhere.

In Georgia, on a back road we stopped at a ramshackle grocery to buy Cokes, entering through the Whites Only signed door. On the side of the building, was a second Whites Only sign for the restroom. I walked around the back of the building where I saw a broken-down sign for Blacks, hanging precariously from the eaves.

I could not take my eyes off of the man behind the counter even though I knew that I should. On his forehead there was a huge boil, the size of a very large cherry. When he spoke, it moved up and down. He asked me what I wanted to drink and I struggled to answer him. “A Coke, sir,” I said, adding the word sir to give him respect.

I thought of this memorable trip last week when I headed south by plane to visit Savannah for the first time. I knew nothing about the city but for years had been circling cities on the map down south –Raleigh, Charleston, Atlanta, and Savannah, contemplating a visit. I had made one trip south for a writer’s retreat to The Virginia Center for Creative Arts (VCCA) in Lynchburg, Virginia in 2015 where I began writing my novel, The Girl Who Counted Numbers. And another trip down to Athens, Georgia to visit the artist Beverly Buchanan whose paintings and shacks I had written about in several arts and culture stories. Beverly took us around in her pick-up truck, giving us a tour of her favorite local folk artists. Most wonderful of all was Reuben Miller whose cut out tin devils and whirligig alligators spun on his front lawn.

Archway of live oaks

But I had never taken a vacation in the south and was completely surprised to learn that Savannah was a small city, with only 150,000 residents. Most buildings were two or three stories high and there was a historic downtown with Neo-colonial homes, and 22 squares. In many of them live oaks formed archways with Spanish Moss hanging down like grey icicles from the branches. It was supposed to be warmer than New York City but as it turned out the five days in January that I spent there were cold, in the 40’s, with one day a storm with 60 miles per hour winds. Even the schools were closed down.

“Night Walk” oil painting by Yu Hong in SCAD Museum of Art

Everyone you passed on the street, smiled or said “hello y’all” and there were lots of young people, many of them students at SCAD, an art school with over 6,000 students, its buildings spread throughout the city. We visited the SCAD Museum of Art; among the exhibits was Night Walk, the wall-size oil paintings of Yu Hong which take the motifs of famous European paintings and interpret them as a reflection of her personal experiences as a contemporary Chinese woman.

The Telfair Museums is comprised of three entities, Jepson Center, a contemporary art and children’s art museum designed by Moshe Safdie, Telfair Academy, the first museum in America founded by a woman and housed in the Telfair family mansion. and the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters. In the Telfair Academy was the iconic Savannah sculpture, Bird Girl statue. The tour guide in the Owens-Thomas house and Slave Quarters, a Regency style building, was careful to describe the relations between the home’s owners and their servants. These servants, she told us, were household slaves. They cleaned the house, cooked the food, and did the gardening. While they were not out on the fields of the plantations picking cotton, their lives were hard and their work was demanding.

Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters, one of the Telfair Museums

City Market, a group of buildings near the river, was once markets and cotton warehouses. Today it houses shops galleries, restaurants and the Prohibition Museum on the ground floor and open art studios on the second floor. Particularly striking was Bobby Bagley’s Fine Art Studio. Bagley spoke of the way he wove backstories into his oil paintings. One work and one backstory in particular moved me immensely. It was a painting of his grandmother’s hand, holding her pocketbook, the one that she always carried to church. Very, very, proper.

Bobby Bagley’s oil painting in his Fine Art Studio

“There were always three things in that handbag,” Bagley told me: “a hard brush in case we kids misbehaved in church; hard candies as a reward for behaving properly; and tissues.” Bagley’s talk about backstories reminded me of Beverly Buchanan whose work he did not know so I told him about Beverly’s shacks and stories and about my shack, Hastings’ House with its memorable caption: Brunson Earthy Hastings lived by the rules of hard work, no liquor, and one woman. His 10 sons were smart, hardworking farm boys but Anna, the only girl, was his heart. He was blind when she graduated but smiled proudly when he heard them call out DR. HASTINGS, to her.”

Beverly Buchanan’s Hastings’ House shack

I had always identified with Anna and bought the piece the minute I read those words. It touched my soul. Bagley and I, two strangers, had a serious talk about where art comes from, about what motivates artists and writers, about how our childhood and our past transforms our present and our future. Every morning, I pause before the shack and think of Anna Hastings. Whether she was real or not, she was real to me.

Congregation Mickeh Israel in Savannah

It was off season in Savannah and there were not many tourists on the streets. During the guided tour of the Congregation Mickve Israel Synagogue–very much in the architectural style of a church — I learned that the first 44 Jews to arrive in Savannah came from London on the second ship to the colony in 1733. Most were Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492 and lived as Crypto (secret) Jews during the centuries that followed. The original group was followed by Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and there are now three flourishing congregations in Savannah, with the Jewish population growing to about 6,000 currently.

15th Century Torah on Deerskin

The Mickve Israel building houses a large collection of artifacts in the synagogue museum. The exhibits detail the history of Jews in Savannah from 1733 featuring a 15th century Torah on deerskin and a letter from one of the synagogue members who owned slaves.

It was refreshing to visit a South where there was acknowledgment of its shameful past. The new south. Lively and creative. The new south where there were no Whites Only signs.



roslyn bernstein

An arts and culture journalist for Guernica, Huff Post, Tablet. Books include The Girl Who Counted Numbers,Engaging Art, Illegal Living, and Boardwalk Stories.